Cannons in the Field

By Chuck Hawks

No, this isn't a war story, its an article about the current trend toward ever more powerful hunting rifles. Rifles packing such excessive overkill power that I refer to them as "cannons" when used on the species of deer, antelope, sheep, and goats that we refer to collectively as medium size big game animals (or sometimes just medium game).

An acquaintance who manages the gun department of a large discount department store in my area recently told me that 7mm Magnum and .300 Magnum rifles were at or near the top of new rifle sales, particularly to younger shooters. He went on to tell me that these buyers viewed rifles in .30-06 Springfield and similar calibers as "old men's rifles."

I found this passing strange, as I live in an area where by far the most commonly hunted big game animal is the Columbian blacktail deer. This inoffensive creature runs about 150-200 pounds on the hoof and lives in and near the dense forests and heavy undergrowth of western British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Blacktails are more commonly killed at less than 100 yards than over, and a .30-30 rifle is nearly perfect for this size game under these conditions.

About the time I began writing this article I bought a hunting magazine devoted to North American trophy hunting at a local super market. This particular issue was largely filled with accounts of successful deer and pronghorn antelope hunts. In fact, it included a special antelope hunting section. I tabulated the rifles used by the authors of those stories to bag pronghorns, which are animals averaging about 90-110 pounds live weight. The final count showed rifles chambered for the following cartridges: 1 for .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, 1 for .300 Weatherby Magnum, 1 for 7mm Remington Ultra Magnum, 2 for 7mm STW, 2 for 7mm Remington Magnum, and 1 for .270 Winchester.

What is wrong with this picture? With the exception of the guy who used the .270, the rest of those calibers are better suited to 500 pound animals than 100 pound animals! (Not that a .270 won't also kill a 500 pound animal if required.) Not a single one of these hunters used a traditional and appropriate antelope caliber like .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .240 Weatherby, .257 Roberts (+P), or .25-06 Remington.

To bag sundry North American deer the hunters featured in the same issue used rifles chambered for the following cartridges: 2 for .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, 1 for .300 Weatherby Magnum, 1 for .300 Winchester Magnum, 1 for 7mm STW, 1 for 7mm Remington Magnum, 3 for .270 Winchester, 1 for 7mm-08 Remington, and 1 for .243 Winchester. Every one of those Magnums (6 out of 11 of those "deer rifles") would have been more appropriate for hunting game two to three times the size of the deer they were actually used to kill.

Magnum rifles like those in the examples above are what I was thinking of when I decided to title this article "Cannons in the Field," and their use seems to be increasing. These rifles are far more powerful than necessary or desirable for use on medium size big game. The most commonly encountered overkill calibers used for hunting animals the size of deer and pronghorn antelope are the 7mm Magnums and .300 Magnums, but also include the 8mm and .338 Magnums.

There is nothing wrong with using a powerful magnum cartridge if you are hunting elk, eland, moose, or grizzly bear. A .300 Magnum rifle may be a reasonable choice for a mixed bag deer and elk hunt if long range shots at elk are likely. For that matter, there is no reason why a hunter who likes the sound and thunder of a big boomer, and can shoot it as accurately as a standard caliber, should not use his pet cannon to blast creatures as inoffensive as impala, pronghorn antelope, or whitetail deer.

But there is definitely something wrong when gun writers imply in their articles and reviews that such calibers are necessary or desirable for hunting medium size big game. Surely there is no logical reason for the ordinary hunter, who presumably is not a masochist, to use such powerful rifles on the species of deer, antelope, sheep, and goats that most of us hunt. The hidden purpose of this is to sell new rifles for their magazines' advertisers.

I suspect that it is the desire to reach out and kill animals at extreme range, a practice that should be discouraged in any case, which sells many ultra powerful rifles. If so, those buyers are mistaken. As those who have read my article Ultra-Long Range Rifles and Cartridges already know, only the largest and most radical magnum calibers confer any practical advantage in trajectory over the standard long range calibers like the 6mm Remington and .270 Winchester.

The short or standard length 7mm Magnums (with 140-150 grain bullets), short or standard length .300 Magnums (with 165-180 grain bullets), the 8mm Remington Magnum (with 170-180 grain bullets), or the European 8x68S (with a 170 grain bullet) all have muzzle velocities of 3000-3150 fps, and similar trajectories. Also in the same class in terms of velocity and trajectory are the .340 Weatherby Magnum and .338 Remington Ultra Magnum with 225 grain bullets.

The hunter seeking a flat shooting rifle for use on medium size game gains nothing by using one of those calibers instead of a 6mm Remington, .25-06, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5x68S, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, or 7x64 Brenneke. All of these calibers also have muzzle velocities in the area of 3000-3150 fps, and all of them have similar trajectories with bullets of similar ballistic coefficient.

But the shooter blasting away with a 7mm, .300, 8mm, or .338 Magnum certainly pays a price in muzzle blast, recoil, and accuracy. No one likes to be punished, and few if any shooters can shoot as well with one of these cannons as they can with a standard caliber.

It is almost always the hunter's failure to place the bullet in a vital spot that causes lost and wounded medium game animals, not a lack of energy or killing power. A 90 grain .243 bullet in the heart/lung area is a good deer slayer, a 180 grain .300 Magnum bullet that misses a vital spot is not, despite weighing twice as much and carrying almost twice the energy at 300 yards. As always, bullet placement is by far the most important factor in killing power.

It is revealing to examine the real ultra-long range cartridges, the flattest shooting cartridges available, and see how many are clearly in the overkill category for use on medium size game. Let me quote from Ultra-Long Range Rifles and Cartridges:

"A careful perusal of the ammunition manufacturers ballistics tables and the popular reloading manuals reveals that the best of the (at lease moderately well known) ultra-long range cartridges appear to be the .240 Weatherby Magnum (100 grain bullet at 3400 fps), .257 Weatherby Magnum (115-120 grain bullet at 3300-3400 fps), 6.5x68S (120 grain bullet at 3300 fps), .264 Winchester Magnum (120 grain bullet at 3300 fps), .270 Weatherby Magnum (130-140 grain bullets at 3300-3375 fps), 7mm Weatherby Magnum (140-150 grain bullets at 3300 fps), 7mm STW (140 grain bullet at 3325 fps), 7mm Ultra Magnum (140 grain bullet at 3425 fps), .300 WSM and .300 Winchester Magnum (150 grain bullets at 3300 fps), .300 Weatherby Magnum (165 grain bullet at 3350 fps), .300 Remington Ultra Magnum (165 grain bullet at 3350 fps), .30-378 Weatherby Magnum (180 grain bullet at 3450 fps), and 8mm Remington Magnum (150 grain bullet at 3400 fps). As you can see, all of these cartridges launch general purpose hunting weight bullets (for their respective calibers) at 3300-3450 fps."

Of the dozen ultra-long range cartridges listed above, six come in standard (.30-06) length magnum cartridges of .24 to .28 (7mm) caliber, two are long Super 7mm Magnums, five are .300 Magnums, and one is an 8mm Magnum. All of the standard length .24, .25, .26, .27 and 7mm caliber ultra-long range cartridges are entirely adequate for use on medium size game at extreme range (even though most hunters are not). All six of these kick less than any of the larger ultra-long range magnums.

So why in the world would any rational person choose a Super 7mm Magnum, .300 Magnum, or 8mm Magnum cartridge for shooting medium size game, even at extreme range? What accounts for the sales of these cannons? I can only conclude that it is ignorance of the true facts, coupled with bad advice from retailers and irresponsible journalism on the part of many gun writers.

A good rule of thumb is to use as much rifle as necessary, but no more, to accomplish the job at hand. That way the hunter will always do his or her best shooting. We owe our quarry a clean, one shot kill, and that primarily results from good bullet placement. It is unwise for the hunter and unfair to the game when a hunter handicaps him or her self with a rifle that degrades that hunter's ability to deliver the most accurate shot possible.

I would suggest saving the super magnums for the large, heavy, or dangerous game that justifies their power, muzzle blast, and recoil. For hunting medium size big game at long range use one of the flat shooting standard calibers from .243 to .280, or (if you are sure you are rifleman enough to take advantage of them) one of the ultra-long range Magnum calibers from .240 to .270. At short and medium range, cartridges in the .30-30 class remain ideal. (For more on that subject, see my article Ideal Deer Cartridges.) Good hunting and, most of all, good shooting!

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Copyright 2002, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.